Archive for December, 2008

Carmen (2003)

“Carmen” (2003)



french Spain

If you start thinking about the set up in which this film is inserted, you will want to see it. At least i did it: This is an adaptation of a novel, by a french writer (immortalized in an opera by a french composer). The writer, Mérimée, was as well an historian-archaeologist-translator; meaning this, someone who cared for “exotism”, in a time in which Spanish or Portuguese rural worlds were still considered exotic to the English and the french. That novel established the clichés and preconceptions regarding Spanish culture still considered these days (and efficiently exploited by the tourism industry). Bizet also helped establish other clichés, musical to that matter. But this film is Spanish, in production, creative minds and people involved. So this was a brilliant opportunity for a view into a distinct edge of Spanish culture described by a french and commented on by the Spanish. That was the motivation for me.

They started off quite well, and at least i think they gave a thought at what i mentioned. That’s why they place Mérimée himself as a character, observing Andaluzia as a foreigner, and taking note of what he sees, even sharing space and scenes with Carmen and José. That was good, and i appreciated the audacity of crossing the line of the facts (if there ever was a real Carmen, Mérimée never got to know her).

But the problem is, they never step out of the very clichés Mérimée established. The film is visually as lush as the opera is musically. The sets are brilliantly baroque, the (excellent) production emphasizes passioned environments (operatic, as well), an orange/yellow deviating sexual mood. But they also emphasize the temperament of the characters a little too much, deviating the thing from what could have been better explored, something that could matter and that is in fact noted:

The drama is built around Carmen, and the inability for José to play the game according to her rules. Those rules are defined by cultural background, and that is where the frictions lie. Carmen comes from a branch of the Spanish culture, that transcends Spain. Gypsies, a group of nomads, a people that wouldn’t, or couldn’t adapt to the established norms the roman derived catholic based culture (that self and forced rejection still lasts today in most of the places). José is Basque, but that is little seen, he could be from Madrid, that in this case it would be the same, he is a cliché as well. So, it is those cultural differences that matter. This is, i mentioned, noted, but not made the center of the thing. They prefer remarking on the sensuality as the engine for the plot and sex as the motivation for the characters, that’s why we have Paz Vega here, who had been in the brilliant sex-centered ‘Lucía y el sexo’ just 2 years before. Well she does deliver what they intended, and she is sensual for my contemporary and contextualized eyes. So it’s not a matter of what they did here, but what they could have done.

Side note: one could also take Carmen as an early symbol for a female emancipation that would only really happen decades later. Is this something Mérimée observed, or something he included as part of his french more cosmopolitan way of thinking?

My opinion: 3/5

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Trasgredire (2000)

“Trasgredire” (2000)



Looking and Touching

Sometimes i choose a number of films, 5 or 6, that explore, i suspect, some issue that interests me. This time i didn’t exactly know what i wanted, but -i knew it had something to do with ways to explore a notion of eroticism, or at least center a film on sex. -Also i wanted to check different ways to understand a woman, or women, through cinema.

This was the first i decided to see from my ‘cycle’ (though it is the second i comment on). It is more centered on a woman, than sex.

It emphasizes Mayarchuk, and the whole story swings around watchers, and desire for her. So it is a story of voyeurs, people who look, people who touch. Even the very idea of what sex stands for in a relation underlines this: people who enjoy watching their partner screwing others. Jealousy as the fuel for passion, and watching as the fuel for being jealous.

Above all the characters who watch each other, we have Brass watching Mayarchuk, and the visual theme here is exploring her. So all the sex that involves her are situations forged to displace her body (specially her buttocks. Notice that all the intercourse with her is from behind, even the oral sex, and the cuddling.

Of course these films, while may give the directors greater freedom to explore their visual concerns (the average public demands few things of these films), they are also attached to low budget (low production values), and a number of rules they have to follow. Tinto Brass is apparently a master on the genre (this is his first film i see), and i think there are things to be explored in these kind of film.

I didn’t find Mayarchuk appealing, despite i come from an European Latin culture. So i suppose she will match the desires of a good portion of Portuguese, Spanish and Italian viewers, to whom blondness, and big sizes are the symbol of a Nordic sexuality, so much appreciated in south Europe.

My opinion: 2/5

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Lila dit ça (2004)

“Lila dit ça” (2004)




*** This comment may contain spoilers ***

‘Finding Forrester’ meets Nabokov, meets Tornatore. The final product may superficially look ‘Lucia y el Sexo’, but it’s quite a different game. And quite different souls playing.

I think in the end, this is a miscellaneous of different ideas, different paces, different dynamics, and it doesn’t really work like was intended (at least like what i think was intended). It tries to work the coming of age of a young boy, the flower that grows in a swamp of marginals. He is a writer, this matters, ahead in the film, and he relates to a girl.

She is a Lolita, and in the end we come to understand that the boy writes the story she tells him (thus the name of the film). I’m starting to find a common device in films, which is the type in which we are hinted that the film we are watching is in fact the film or book that someone in that film is creating. ‘Pepi, Luci…’, ‘Das Leben…’etc. one day i’ll list them.

Vahina Giocante is part of the reason this failed for me. She is no Dominique Swain, or even Juliette Lewis. A part like this probably required someone like Jennifer Connely in her teen/early adult years. Giocante actually uses her eyes quite well, but not much more than that. This may be cultural, but she didn’t work here for me.

There is a subplot about Muslim immigrants in France (the director belongs, i believe, to that context). I think it steps a little bit too much on that subject. Nothing against it, but you can make films about immigration and social frictions if you want (‘La Haine’, made by a french) but here it was supposed to work on the level of the innocent encounter, intimate revelations, boy meets girl and what comes out of that. The rest is useless to me.

The ending is quite powerful, indeed probably the most powerful bit of the film. That’s probably because it uses the writing device i noted above to solve and finish the dramatic arc of the whole thing. The girl has a book where she collects pieces of magazines, photographs, newspapers, the material she uses to invent her sex centered life. The boy finds out all was an invention in the bed where she is rapped yes, but the bit where he relives her fantasies through the clip book was much more powerful to me. This makes partially up for the weaknesses and ineffectiveness of the rest of the film.

I think there was ambition here, the director is making his way (this is just his second film), but it failed to me. And i’m really pity it did, i came to this because i’m finding a life in films tackling films that depict women, and try to understand them, or give an interesting point of view on them (Medem is my master in this corner).

My opinion: 2/5

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Marnie (1964)

“Marnie” (1964)



Just an Edge

This is a less regarded film by Hitchcock. I think it fails in a point to which Hitchcock was certainly aiming at, but gets it right in other level. Anyway, i think what mattered the most to Hithcock at this point was what i think fails.

People who’ve read other remarks i made on Hitch’s films will know that i think he worked in clear phases, motivated by issues he was interested in mastering. So, i think he had a spatial exploration ‘Rope phase’, another one based on mood/style, (culminated in North by Northwest) and a third phase where i place this film.

This phase has to do with the master trying to find visual/storytelling solutions to try and enter the abyss of human soul. I imagine that, being already a master in superficial visual manipulation/storytelling, and having created such essays on how the eye works (Rear Window, Rope, Dial M…) he was interested to know what he might do trying to put the guts of a character in the eyes of an audience. Rough expression, i know, but that’s what i feel. The curious thing here is that he made it in his first try, with Vertigo, one of the best films ever. What he did after it was never as sharp and interesting to me. Not Psycho, Birds or this Marnie.

The success of Vertigo is that Novak’s character fools us as she fools Stewart’s and so we wander through the same narrow labyrinthic streets of ignorance as Stewart. That’s the device he use, and Hitch’s superior ability to make things unfold visually completes the thing.

So the point where this film fails is where it was more ambitious: in trying to make us work like Marnie, and see the world with her eyes. There is no storytelling device that allows Hitch to use his wonderful visual narration gifts to make the thing work. That’s why he has to use the red screen whenever he wants to underline Marnie’s state of mind. Except for those moments which are not enough to make to transport us, at least not today’s audiences, as spectators we are mere observers to the facts of a woman we sense is disturbed, but we don’t really feel in what measure.

Also, and this may be Hedren/Censorship fault, we cannot (at least i couldn’t) link to the distorted and repressed sexuality underneath Marnie’s frigidity. Maybe on those matters, the film that this theme deserved couldn’t be done in 1964. The horse as a escapist element to her mother’s sexual repression, the behaviour of repulse as the core of her capacity to attract, or the rape scene (both by Sean’s character and the hinted rape when she was a child). Pity, but i don’t know whether Hedren would be able to pull this off even without censorship constraints. She just doesn’t seem that woman (maybe Novak or Kelly could have done it).

What works is what Hitchcock never failed in delivering: his visual economy, and how he grabs you in the eye and takes you wherever he wants. There are scenes which are absolutely remarkable on their own. So check the initial scene, how he establishes what Marnie does, her method, her disguise, and the introduction of Sean Connery’s character and what he knows. Check the scene of the robbery in Rutland’s office, how the perfect framing (in terms of deciding exactly what we see) makes a tense scene and purely visual. And check the relatively celebrated crane shot in the party, it really is masterfully economical and meaningful. The film is a relative failure for what i said, but these scenes make it worthy.

My opinion: 3/5

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Double Indemnity (1944)

“Double Indemnity” (1944)



Character drives Fate?

Just before this one, i watched Lang’s ‘Ministry of Fear’. Where Lang was a man getting out of a visual world to enter another one with similar visual effects, but used in a totally different way (and there lies Lang’s difficulties to enter the new world) Billy Wilder was born cinematically in the context of the noir game, was one of the best in it, and made the best film in this first phase, to me. This is his first noir (only his fourth film). You can see where he is going, and to watch this is important if not else, to understand the roots of ‘Sunset Blvd.’, a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling.

So, a common device is the narration where the main character around whom and on the back of whom the whole story develops, narrates the whole thing (in ‘sunset…’ we assumed we were hearing a dead man, here he tapes his own voice, before dying). That’s good, it’s effective in two ways. -First it tells us where the story ends, we know that somehow, something will happen to let the character as we see him at the beginning of the film and it limits the narrative in two points. The images we first get of the character after all happens, and the the first moment of the flashback he narrates. -Also it definitely tells us who the narrator is; we Know that everything we will see is from the eyes and point of view of Neff, and specially, what we don’t see he also hasn’t seen.

The rest is common noir game, several characters fighting for power over the action, Neff, the blond ‘femme’, Zachetti; one woman who is a puppet to every puppeteer, Lola, and a ‘detective’ who in this case is not the center of the story, instead tries to figure things we, audience, already know, and serves as an obstacle to Neff (Robinson’s character).

It fails in some points. I think Stanwyck doesn’t have the required magnetism, and even more when she shares the screen with the marvellous Jean Heather, who poses and acts in far more interesting ways. Her character could have been explored with much more depth, she is Lola(ita!). I suppose the codes and censorship wouldn’t have allowed for something really interesting to be made with her character. Zachetti is supposed to be an unimportant character who turns out to be crucial. But the fact is he doesn’t matter. And the conclusion to the game is weak because it is Neff who chooses his destiny, not the other way around… HE might simply had turn his back and get away with it if it wasn’t for conscience problems. He should have ended tied up but the fate which moved him all along.

My opinion: 3/5

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Ministry of Fear (1944)

“Ministry of Fear” (1944)



Noir and (No) Soul

What happened to Fritz Lang when he moved to America? All the strongest elements of his film-making in Germany were lost. I’m tackling his American films, so far i reached 3 of them, and none is worth the time.

So, the story is known: having made a good number of films in Germany, all of them (or most) trying to explore the limits of cinema as a stage, and working in finding a visual manifestation for the souls depicted (expressionism). In the way, he created works of everlasting visual power (M, Mabuse and Metropolis are probably the higher points, as far as I know). He was not alone, he was inserted in a tendency in Germany. With the rise of the Nazis he moved to America. There he abandoned the expressionist experiments, and started to produce mainly in an evolving genre, that would become film noir. The basic noir, of the 40′ borrows visually from the expressionism Lang helped develop in Germany, but it had different narrative development, and changed the meaning of what the light/shadows effects meant in the German films.

This last aspect is probably what made the thing fail for Lang. In Germany he was interested (as an expressionist) in passing a characters heavy feeling or soul to us, and make us feel like he does, and creating a world that reflects a soul. For noir to work, the filmmaker must be concentrated on how the story develops around the character. It’s a matter of creating a world that the main character (and us) doesn’t know, in order to make him (and us) find it. The character is at the center of that world.

So, this Is noir. It has all the elements, indeed it is well crafted. It was made when noir was completely established as a genre, and the rules of that genre are all here. So we have Ray Milland’s character at the center of a conspiracy created ‘especially’ for him. But than, Lang wants us to see the depths of his soul, the clock he watches at the beginning and throughout the film. And that scrambles things, even because the noir construction is pure noir, but not that good, not that engaging.

Adding to this, we have the will to portray war. So the subplot of the conspiracy is probably a message of “suspect of everybody” that was intended for those days audiences. But after all, it’s entertainment.

So this is soulless, because Lang wanted to develop souls, but the genre required narrative skills, in that then relatively new genre.

My opinion: 1/5

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Number Seventeen (1932)

“Number Seventeen” (1932)



3 visions

If this had been Hitchcock’s last movie, it would only have some historical interest today. But because he went on to direct films such as Rope and Rear Window, this little film (and others) becomes important for us to trace where his curious camera eye began.

I want to check other Hitch’s films from this time, but right now, for my eyes, in this moment he was strongly attached to two existing visual conceptions and wanting to develop his own.

So we have strong contrasts, where shadow draws actions, or objects or even characters and that defines the mood of the action, following German expressionism (that would later support perfectly the narrative construction of the noir films). Hitch is not a genius in this film, but he mastered it quite well. This is present in the first part of the film, in the house.

He also follows Eisenstein, and the train section is a quite good montage. He handles the models quite well, and the editing has a good rhythm and balance. Once again he is competent.

But the great thing in here is in the first half of the film: the camera movement. I bet he chose that house with that stair pit so he could play with what interested him the most. The camera moves and explores space, the scene where the detective (and ourselves) get into the house for the first time is a precocious demonstration of what his ‘Rope phase’ would bring. The first third of the film is basically going up and down the stairs, finding out things, exploring them with the camera.

His ‘McGuffin’ strategy is a mess here, where he still couldn’t make the plot enough simple and effective to make us forget it and concentrate in what he was doing in the eye. It’s confusing, and so complex (so many unnecessary characters!) that it may want to try to invent a meaning for all that. Well, i didn’t care and enjoyed this for the visual manipulation Hitch makes.

This film is broken into pieces (starting with the plot) and divided into cinema tendencies. Every bit is competent enough, but the overall result is quite messy. Well, he was experimenting.

My opinion: 2/5

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Paprika (2006)

“Paprika” (2006)



filmed dreams – dreamed films

This was another great adventure in the fields of Japanese animation. Between the bad stuff which emulates western ways to hit easily large crowds, and those productions which are essentially money making extensions of successful TV series/comics, we find great worthy films. This is probably the best i found so far.

It’s a film about films. Literally. Dreams here are faced as films. One of the first scenes establishes this, when Paprika makes a direct comparison between dreams and films, she even makes the difference between short and long forms. The film starts with a dream sequence which is in itself a series of film quotations, from Tarzan to Hitchcock. Those dreams are ‘grabbed’ by a machine which literally turns them into films one can watch in a screen. Those first minutes establish all this, with great economy and clarity.

Notice that in crucial moments, the transition between realities, or between dreams, or even better, between films, is literally made through a screen in a theatre.

The man whose dreams we see at the beginning (the police detective!) was himself a filmmaker, so his head (his dreams!) are inhabited by films, and this is a direct reference to how films mold our dreams and our imagination. I mention that many times when i write. Films are probably the strongest vehicle for modern generations to function mentally, in the dreams field, they have that responsibility. So we have a street of theaters with numerous films in exhibition, including another feature of the man who directed this, or Audrey’s War and Peace. Take your pick, that’s what i took from it.

In one specific scene, in a crucial moment when all the accumulated dreams we spy mix with explosive results, we have that detective talking about technical film terms, and he physically is modeled fully after Kurosawa. He is inside a theatre when this happens. This was great and a definitive approach to the idea of dreams as films. Kurosawa directed a film in which we would visit his own personal dreams, get into them with the perfect notion we were visitors to an inviting mind. Satoshi Kon might have that in mind when he chose to use Kurosawa; or he simply chose Kurosawa for pure fun.

Paprika starts as a pivot in the story, seeing and correcting things without much interference, but ends helping to write the story. Ultimately things are solved when the detective figures the end of his troubled filmed dream.

The music fully covers what’s intended. It has a beautiful ambiguity and attractiveness completely in the mood of what we saw: you can never be sure of whether you’re in a dream or in reality, but no matter how dangerous it looks, you always feel like going into it.

My opinion: 4/5 this film matters.

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Wilder (2000)

“Wilder” (2000)



TV pharmaceuticals

What bothers me in films like this is not the things that don’t work in it. It’s the thing that could have been done. It’s not so much the visual lack of power and effectiveness of it, but the total mental poverty that surrounds it.

They picked up two mildly interesting actors, with credits on their hands and assigned them to this total mess, relying that the fact that they’re in makes the whole think work on the financial side.

This is a total mess, a weak story, about some honest people fighting pharmaceutical interests, against all odds, the ‘Fugitive’ type. Pam Grier is assigned the extra role of being her past roles, associated with racial concerns and feminism. Both she and Hauer are cashing their checks. They could be doing better things.

Trying to get away with such a film is as much a deceit as it is the radioactive tests in the film.

My opinion: 1/5

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for the films, Manoel de Oliveira


Regular readers of this blog know that i write almost always directly about films. With the exception of half a dozen entries on several themes, all the rest are commentary on films i watch. Today is one of those exceptions. The exception is that a director still working completes 100 years. The vast majority of the portuguese share 2 characteristics: -they all know the man, Manoel de Oliveira and know that today is his 100th aniversary; -few of them ever saw a film by him and those who saw them, usually don’t “like” them;

Nevertheless, i think that if it is curious that someone lives to direct a film at the age of 100, the Work in question is more than just curious. I matters, to me, and in some moments, it has a presence in my dreams. Since i began this blog, i commented on 1 Oliveira’s film, his Cristóvão Colombo – O Enigma but the truth is, the very first time i ever wrote about cinema, it was commenting one of his films. In August 18th 2002, i wrote a commentary on “Viagem ao princípio do Mundo”, a film that changed my way to watch films and therefore my dreams. Today, when i read what i wrote, when i was 18 and had a growing urge for films, i don’t keep the naive and unconscious observations i made, but i subscribe the passion for that film, which i now extend to the rest of this man’s work. So i leave you that rough comentary:

Portuguese fado plus deep philosophy

I must say that this film, made by the most prestigious portuguese director (Manoel de Oliveira), is a great reflexion about Portugal’s more typical feelings and about life in general. It has in it the symbols of many things like the hard work shown by Pedro Macau, the statue. It is also a way to show the beautiful landscape (at least a sample of it) that my country has… It is important to notice the past of Afonso, the son of a portuguese emigrant in France, which is very common in Portugal (there are about 750 000 portuguese emigrants in France) and the recent portuguese history told by the country old woman. It’s a grace to watch to this touching movie. In it Marcello Mastroianni says Goodbye to cinema… and to life. He did the best way, I must say. This peace of art proves at least two things… Poetry can be written through images, and the portuguese people have poetry on its spirit; Oliveira with his now 93 years old proved it… Behold a master piece!…

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